First, let me take the point of various Deputies' contributions, in particular Deputy O'Keeffe's, in regard to their anxiety in the matter of payment for advisory services provided by ACOT. Deputy O'Keeffe expressed the view that certain categories of farmers such as those on low incomes, in particular those with underdeveloped holdings and those in disadvantaged areas and also those in financial difficulties, should be exempted from any charges. I have, as promised, considered these matters in the meantime. The Bill does not in any way rule out such exemptions. It is purely an enabling Bill which leaves the nature and details of any proposed charges to be drawn up by ACOT and submitted for ministerial approval. It is precisely the same Bill as that introduced by the previous Government to meet a situation where not all farmers would be charged. There is therefore no necessity for any amendment to provide specifically for exemptions to be allowed in particular cases.
Administrative arrangements could of course be made to provide for the situation which Deputy O'Keeffe desires. However, the operation of a means test or other mechanism to identify those who are deemed unable to afford the payment of charges would obviously create exceptional administrative difficulty and lead to endless appeals. This would clearly be counter productive to ACOT's main objective of assisting farm development.
As I stated at the conclusion of Second Stage, it should be quite possible for ACOT to devise a scheme which would provide various options for obtaining advisory services and which would take account of the various categories of farmers and the particular needs of each category. I have no doubt that in this way provision can be made to cater for those farmers with low incomes and those in severe financial difficulty.
ACOT's work brings them into close and trusted relationships with farmers at all income levels. The service, with its special expertise, should, in consultation with the Department of Agriculture and Food, be in a position to formulate a scheme or a system which would take due account of the needs of such farmers. I am opposed to laying down advanced prescriptions which would pre-empt ACOT's freedom to devise proposals which they consider are most appropriate. I can, however, give the House an assurance that when the question of approval of ACOT's proposals arises, due account will be taken of the position of low income farmers and farmers in financial difficulty, with the object of enabling them to continue to have access to the advisory services of ACOT. The general thrust of this Bill, now as when it was originally introduced, is to raise income from those farmers who are able to pay and from those who are benefiting most from the services provided. I made the point on Second Stage that a substantial number of farmers are earning very large sums of money and benefiting to a considerable extent from ACOT. It is that category of farmer on which the Bill focuses.
This is purely enabling legislation to allow ACOT to earn income from farmers deriving most benefit and from those who are in a position to pay for that service. In times of financial stringency, additional income from farmers who can afford to pay will have the effect of providing a more comprehensive overall service and thereby be of considerable help to farmers in the category about which Deputy O'Keeffe and his colleagues are concerned. The additional income will allow ACOT to focus on programmes of advice, on seminars, leaflets, radio programmes, telephone exchange of information with individual farmers and so on. Without this additional income ACOT would be in a worse position and would be unable to provide the kind of service for the farmers we are particularly concerned about. On 10 April 1986, the then Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Deputy Hegarty, when introducing the Bill said at column 481 of the Official Report:
Nevertheless there is no doubt that there are a number of farms, whether operated by individuals, firms, or other bodies, which are at a high level of development and generating good profits. It is eminently reasonable that those with such farms should be required to contribute an appropriate share to the cost of ACOT's professional services which are of financial benefit to their farm businesses.
While this legislation will enable ACOT to charge for advisory services it also provides that any such charges and the criteria on which they are based will be subject to prior approval of the Minister for Agriculture. Furthermore, should the Minister consider, in the light of changing circumstances, that any fees or charges should be varied or, indeed, terminated, the legislation will enable him to direct ACOT to vary or terminate them.
Some may think that the introduction of charges will be a disincentive to some farmers to seek advice and I am, of course, conscious of this possibility. There will be full consultation between my Department and ACOT prior to the introduction of any charges regarding their level and the criteria to be used in their formulation.
The same situation applies now. It is only right, proper and appropriate that those able to pay and those benefiting most from the service should contribute. Their contribution will be of immense benefit to farmers in the less well off category. I can assure the House that, following consultations with ACOT, when the question of the approval of the scheme of ACOT services comes up, due account will be taken of the position of low income farmers, those who are in severe financial difficulty and those who are on low incomes because of their location.
Amendment No. 1 reads:
In page 2, line 16, after "fees", to insert the following:
",and may set terms and conditions relating to the charging and variation of such proposed fees,".
I believe there is not a real need for the inclusion of this amendment because subsection (3) (b) already provides "... and any terms and conditions ... of any such proposed fees shall be subject to the prior approval of the Minister,". It is clearly implied that ACOT may accept terms and conditions and there is no need to make expressed provision for it. The simple object of the subsection is to give ACOT power to make charges.
Amendment No. 3 reads:
In page 2, line 25, after "conditions", to insert the following:
", and who will do so unless he is satisfied that such terms and conditions make adequate provision for those who are unable to pay".
I am opposed to this amendment on the grounds that it is unnecessary, inappropriate, and in practice unworkable. It is unworkable chiefly because it would introduce the concept of persons "unable to pay" into the Act. The determination of those who are unable to pay is a matter of subjective judgment. The amendment would impose on the Minister an obligation to discriminate between different individuals without clearly specifying objective grounds on which such discrimination can be made. The law officers advise me that this could lead to endless claims, and possibly litigation, by persons claiming they come within the description of "unable to pay". It could be open to objections on constitutional grounds.
It is inappropriate because the setting and periodic revision of charges to take account of the economic situation in farming or among certain categories of farmers can more effectively be done by administrative means for which the Minister can provide in the context of his powers of approval, which are very flexible. I have said they can be terminated in the light of improving financial circumstances.
It is unnecessary because the Minister has ample powers in the approval of proposed changes to see that suitable provision is made to meet the position of farmers of limited means who should not, in the overall public interest, be excluded from availing of ACOT's advisory service. It is significant that the previous Government, who had indicated their intention that charges would not apply to all farmers, were quite satisfied with the provisions of the present Bill. The provisions in that Bill were deemed to be adequate and not to need any amendment.
I therefore propose that the amendment be rejected.